Autobiographical Bits

Love at the Bakery

After the war the proprietors of the Hatch Gate bakery in Burghfield decided to move on and, at 25, Ken Blake became the new village baker. Ken’s dad, William, had worked his way up from sales rep to sales manager with the printers Kenrick and Jefferson, and the family had moved from West London to the Reading area when K&J had opened a branch there. Ken received an education at a small commercial school and then Sparsholt Agricultural College, but, though intelligent, Ken was something of a loner, an only child lacking a sense of direction and heavily emotionally dependent on his mother, Hetty. In any case, any plans for Ken’s future were scuppered when war was declared just weeks after his eighteenth birthday – a traumatic event for William, who had lost both brothers in WW1 and suffered congestive heart failure while posted to Ireland with the cavalry reserve.  As it was, Ken failed the medical for the RAF, being both overweight and without reflexes in one leg due to a childhood accident. Ken was deployed to farm work and other government-directed employment, so had no career as the war ended: the bakery offered an opportunity to develop one. Though Ken had no previous experience, he did possess two very large hands capable of kneading two loaves at once, and a capacity for turning his hand to many practical tasks.  All the same, with his wide range of reading, often unconventional opinions and temperamental nature, he was not an obvious fit for a village baker.

Preceding the changeover there was a farewell party for the outgoing proprietors: also an opportunity for Ken and family to meet others who worked at the bakery, including the delivery girl, who arrived late to hungrily devour a lunch at the kitchen table. This was Ellen Bosley, known as Jean, daughter of Albert, a gardener on Lord Iliffe’s estate at Yattendon. She was 23, dark-haired, amenable and industrious, and Ken was immediately smitten by her.  Jean had actually been engaged during the war, when she was part of the wide social life that was ROF Theale, where this unassuming and decidedly unwarlike young woman worked prodigious hours making shells and Sten guns. Her fiancée had abandoned her for her best friend, a bitter blow, and now her social options were far more limited. But it is highly doubtful that she saw the new baker as a future husband.

Nevertheless, Jean fitted in well with the new regime. She got on well with Hetty: the two of them looked after the café at the bakery, sharing a few jokes at the airs and graces put on by some of the more pretentious customers.  Meanwhile Ken proved his mettle in the kitchen, filling the jam doughnuts, wasps carpeting both arms, and (if his account is to be believed, he did like to tell a story) becoming immune to their stings.

Ken was certainly not becoming immune to the charms of Jean, however, driving her around the delivery round, marvelling at the bright eyes and white teeth gleaming out of a permanently tanned face.  Everything she did she did eagerly, her vitality tempered by her modesty. Could he possibly ask her out?  No, that was unthinkable.  He would have to ask his mum to do it.

And that is precisely what happened.  Hetty told Jean that Ken would like to take her to the pictures, and Jean, naturally enough, thought it was a joke – until Ken turned up on the doorstep of Winton, the bungalow on Theale Road which Jean shared with her elder sister Mildred. So began the romance, in a very uncertain fashion. Historical details are sketchy, but it is a fair bet Jean had never known anyone like Ken before, and his wit and wide cultural frames of reference undoubtedly impressed her. He had the ability to foster new interests in her and encourage her in ways her unaspiring parents had not. But he also had a lot of underlying anger and a fearsome temper, as she discovered when criticising his driving one day and finding herself summarily dumped on the roadside. Having been finally won over to the idea of a relationship, it may well have been events like this which caused her to break things off at least once. And it may well have been other events in Jean’s life – not the least the suicide of her beloved brother – which influenced her to finally make the relationship permanent.  There were certainly happy times – a first holiday since pre-war, accompanied by Ken’s uncle (though miraculously, not his mum), and for a while, a flourishing business.

All that was to come to an end, however. Packaged bread was enjoying a surge in popularity, and the Hatch Gate Bakery’s fresh crusty home-made loaves could not compete with the rubbery industrial fodder issuing from the Sunblest factories, which did not require a bread knife and, rather more crucially, kept for at least three times as long. Eventually the business was no longer viable (not the last of Ken’s ventures to go that way), but the couple finally married in 1952, had three children and eventually did reasonably well for themselves, largely as a consequence of Ken becoming electrical contractor to the 1969 Isle of Wight Pop Festival.  One thing that united the couple was a love of growing and cooking their own food, and one thing which characterised the Dorset home of their retirement was the aroma of freshly baked bread.

1946: A Baker’s Day

The following is an account of working in the Hatchgate Bakery written my my dad, Ken Blake, and given a little editing by me to improve his rather wayward punctuation and grammar!

Laying in bed in Marsanne in the early morning thinking about the bakery. The old side flue oven and its routine.  The Sunday evening light-up to warm it for the early Monday baking. Making a slow overnight dough in the old Dumbrill mixer, cutting it out and putting it in a dough trough for the night. In the morning making a faster dough, into the other trough. The overnight dough knocked back and out on top of the other trough. Hot water to make the dough from the tank over the oven fire. Light the fire, plenty of coal on. Weigh the dough on the balance scale with weights. Mould up the pieces, put into tins: some half gallon tins with slide-on lids, some grout tins for upturning on steel sheets, all for sandwich loaves, then the open tins, mostly oblong, and a few round pans for Coburg loaves. Cover with flour sacks to prove. When they are nearly ready cut some through centre for split tins: two cuts for a Coburg. Check the oven when the crown is white, as the flames fan through it is ready at the right heat. Shut the flue, let fire die back.  Take a swizzle, a pole with an old sack tied to the end soaked in a bath of water, then put into the oven and swing it round to clear ashes from the sole (firebrick tiled floor of oven). Then set the bread with a peel, a pole with a flat wood paddle on the end. Put the tins on the paddle then push the pole into the oven and pack the loaves with it. Long pole at first – the oven is 10 feet long – then as the tins fill up, change to a shorter peel.

When the bread is baked, open the oven door and stand back for the hot steam to escape. Then reverse the process – short peel first, then the long one. The width of the bakehouse was about 10 feet so that when you drew the long peel back, the end of the pole sometimes hit the wall, which over the years had become very pitted. No oven gloves – we wore yeast bags over our hands to protect them from the hot tins. Yeast came in seven pound bags, fine jute, and there was a constant supply of these. They soon wore out. The hottest job was sliding the lid off the half gallon tins before turning them out, standing the bread to cool and greasing the tins again. They had to be greased for each use: lard, and again a yeast bag to wipe it round the tins, just a very fine smear. Out with the next dough, make up the fire and start again. Hot work, hard work. The price of the flour was fixed, the price of bread was fixed: 4 1/2 pence for a large quart loaf. The government via the ministry of food allowed us 7 shillings, a small profit, that is about 212 loaves. Yeast prices were fixed, so was salt, and that was then all dough was made of. Bags of flour were 140 lbs in returnable bags.  Salt came in 112lb jute sacks. A large loaf was one and three quarter pounds, a small loaf 12 ounces. Rationing still existed and customers needed bread ration coupons.

We also made lardy cake.  Lardy was 10 ounces of bread dough rolled out, spread with 2 ounces of lard, 2 ounces of sugar, 2 ounces of currants, folded in and rolled to fit a 6 inch tin, round about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 deep. These tins were never washed, just wiped out. Billy Johnson was the best lardy maker.

Once the second batch of bread was loaded on the delivery van at midday there was space for cake making in the afternoon. After a lean start lunch break was very welcome.

Bread was made both for the shop and for van rounds: packed loose on vans and delivered to door in baskets – hence the slang for a large belly, “breadbasket”. We also had two contracts, one with the  Admiralty, HMS Dauntless on Burghfield Common –  all new entry Wrens did initial training here – and Grazeley Residential Club, a workers hostel. Their requirements varied and sometimes we baked bread in the afternoon for them. As all cakes were baked in a dying bread oven in the lower temperature after the bread was done, afternoon bread meant cakemaking in the evening and sometimes all night. This meant very little sleep for me, sometimes just two or three hours.